When Pets Go To School

It is somewhat common to see pets in a preschool classroom although the incidence of such is diminishing with pressures rooted in liability and the emergence of corporate childcare centers. It’s far less likely to see pets in an elementary, middle, or high school classroom. This is unfortunate, as it is an opportunity missed. The American Humane Association (AHA), following an extensive study, “Pets In the Classroom, July 2015, which includes interviews and surveys of teachers, suggests that “the use of pets in classrooms may benefit children in social, behavioral, and/or academic realms.” 

According to the AHA, teachers view both the uses and benefits of classroom pets as primarily centering around six objectives. These include teaching children responsibility and leadership and compassion and empathy. Children who have pets in their classroom develop respect for all living things. Also, pets in school enhance and enrich a variety of traditional and non-traditional academic lessons, from science to language arts. Pets provide a gateway to relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage. Pets often help students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, making the school environment more conducive to quality learning, growth, and social connections. Pets at school expose students to new experiences and opportunities, particularly for those who do not have pets of their own. This often translates to a decrease in unfounded fears and mitigates cultural biases children may possess. 

Sure, there are challenges to welcoming classroom pets; this is not for everyone. Some teachers are faced with out-of-pocket expenses to care for the pet. In addition, they must be willing and able to assume the responsibility of pet care and accommodations if all other plans fall through. Teachers must ensure safe, productive, and educational interactions between the students and the pet(s) and, sooner or later, address, cope with and help students process the death of a pet. 

At Voyagers’ Community School, and in similar schools and classrooms around the country, pets are integral to the everyday goings-on.  Guinea pigs, fish, iguanas, pairs of rabbits, geckos, and even dogs are often welcomed. A school that is mindfully and carefully managing these beloved pets has lots of discussions with students, parents, faculty, staff and visiting guests. Often, the teacher, with the aid of the students, establish classroom pet monitors, compose charts and agreements that outline the proper care of the pet, establish rules for holding or interacting with the pet, and devise directives and detailed plans for the loving care of the pet during after school hours. 

From its inception, Voyagers’ students have requested pets. Our first attempt was a rabbit who perished early due to an illness contracted prior to our adoption. From this arose a discussion about cultural traditions around death and the care of the body and spirit of once-living things. Losing a pet stirred our sense of caution but several years later we adopted turtles. To this day, two turtles, Raphael and Donatello bask in their oversized tank and react with interest to any person who approaches. Following this, and for years, we have welcomed trout eggs which hatch and grow through the school year and are released in May. No one will forget the day a preschooler overfed the trout without notice. Again we discussed thoughtful care for living things, death, respect, and our community’s traditions. The children established our pet cemetery. Included in our current menagerie are goldfish, a gecko, turtles, and our beloved Shih Tzu, Socks, who was selected by the students from a litter of three and has, for eight years, roamed our halls and played ball in our yard sporting her therapy vest. To be honest, we have turned down many potential pets including snakes, rodents, birds, and rabbits. When welcoming pets, it is important to know your limits.

For those educators who want to introduce pets but are not ready to commit to their full-time care, there are alternate ways to introduce students to pets. Consider joint custody between 2 or more classes, pets on loan from local pet shops (some requiring a small deposit), hatchlings such as chicks or pheasants, who, after about a week are placed on a farm, or visiting therapy dogs. If you are sold on the idea, explore grants to support your classroom pet. Visit petsintheclassroom.org to learn more.

Teaching the Hard Stuff

Having read the title, you are most likely expecting an article about calculus, physics or the analysis of poetry. For some, these were the more challenging school subjects. However, the everyday issues at the core of American society spark the questions on the minds of our elementary school children.

These children, at a very early age, through their surroundings and the free flow of information bombarding them, become increasingly aware of the privilege and power that comes with whiteness, maleness, gender, religion, wealth, and physical ability. Our inclination, when we hear this, is to proclaim that we should shelter, whitewash, and deflect when children ask questions about these matters rather than address them head-on. Tradition states that children should be children for as long as possible. The simple answer is yes, and no. 

With so many intersecting and overlapping identities regarding race, color, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion/belief status, and more, virtually all children have aspects of their identity that give them privilege, and others that place them at a disadvantage. Wouldn’t it be better to answer their questions honestly and even to initiate these conversations in safe and developmentally appropriate ways so they can move through life aware of how these issues play out all around them?

In our 21st-century Global Studies curricula, lessons about history and society always raise the question of privilege. Whether talking about state’s rights, the rights of people, or the effects of conflict, there are two sides, those with power and those without, as defined by identity and status. Addressing this helps children to become better listeners, to think before acting, and to consider the impact of their actions on others. These are crucial lessons all children need to learn.

In our high school humanities class, students are encouraged to speak freely while studying the Antebellum Period, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Questions emerge about the “N” word, blackness and national origin, and who “We the people” in the Declaration of Independence was referring to. When considering homelessness and poverty in our elementary class, grades 3-5, or incarceration and the prison system in our middle school, grades 6-8, children puzzle over imbalanced statistics. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites and 20% of blacks and 16% of Hispanics, compared to 8% of whites, are living in poverty. When we introduce American heroes, inventors, and thought leaders, children learn the names of marginalized and forgotten people who were left out of lessons at prior schools.

When children encounter the truth about discrimination they realize many people see and experience the world very differently from the way they do; this enables them to “walk in another person’s shoes”. This heightened awareness and the ability to look at situations through a different lens is essential to developing empathy, open-mindedness, and solutionary attitudes.

Each person’s history matters and children shift from knowing their insular world to knowing the broader world and its people. Recently, during a visit from Yves Mathieu, an international activist, model, dancer, musician, and advocate for marginalized groups, he and students spoke honestly about activism, discovering a passion, trans rights, proper representation, respecting blackness, and making a difference in one’s community.  

When social justice drives curriculum, children speak their minds, ask lots of questions, express varying points of view and consider the ideas of others. Teachers ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity, and instill a deep, intrinsic desire in students to be change-makers, innovators and confident visionaries by remaining open to children’s questions and honestly delivering information from many angles.

When adults tell kids the truth about hard things in the world, they say, “I can be trusted and I believe you can deal with hard things, and play a role in making the world a better place.” When children feel emboldened to do the right thing they lead fuller and happier lives and help others to do so too. This creates a better world for all of us. Then we can all get on with the shared experience of play, rest and relaxation.

Try taking your children to the new exhibit titled AFROFUTURISM that is open at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center in Red Bank until November 8th. Your children will learn about the African American physicist, Dr. Walter McAfee, who worked at Fort Monmouth for many years and taught at Monmouth University. He was the first person to successfully bounce a signal off the moon which has led to all the technology we enjoy and use today

How to Create Work That MATTERS

Meaningful Project-based Learning Arises From Three Things:

Passion + Time + Mentorship

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

From the moment we are born, our journey of learning begins! As babies interact with their environment, they start to make human connections, process information and develop an understanding of the world. As each year passes, individuals expand upon their experiences and make sense of life from various perspectives: newborn, toddler, child, teenager, and finally as an adult.  Most people would agree that children are naturally inquisitive. Parents play a critical role in being our first teachers, as they place their children on a path to success by observing how they learn best, consider and support their likes and interests, and provide meaningful opportunities for their children to make deep connections with new experiences.  

At many progressive schools, teachers expand upon this type of supportive instructional experience through project-based learning.  Project-based learning provides opportunities for students to be leaders and explorers in their own educational journey. By designing their own unique plans of inquiry, students construct questions, formulate ideas, research and analyze information, develop critical thinking skills, and “own the content” on a deeper and more meaningful level. The unique personal desires, connections, and interests in a subject are valued and built into the curriculum.  By exploring their passions, students become immersed in challenging, higher level content and often forget that they are “doing the work” of learning. It becomes a joyful, productive process. 

Project Based Learning comes to life at many independent schools around the world. Voyagers’ Community School, in our own backyard, offers to their students Project Weeks, which takes place two times each year.  During these times, students create a proposal for an individualized, educational project, that defines the parameters and expectations for learning. With support from their teachers, students embark on high-interest explorations that culminate in dynamic school-wide presentations by each and every student. Through project-based learning, students may engage in artistic experiences, design solutions to local and global problems, conduct scientific research investigations, participate in historical simulations, etc.  During Project Weeks, Voyagers’ students let their creativity flow freely. They design projects for learning where they: 

  • Create and share podcasts highlighting student projects
  • Participate in the creation of artistic pieces: sculptures, paintings, music, etc. 
  • Invent practical solutions to environmental and social issues. 
  • Generate unique literacy pieces based on poetry, fiction, etc.
  • Explore and research careers of the future. 
  • Conduct interviews with experts in the fields of science, art, history, etc.

The outcomes of these self-directed, project-based learning opportunities leave students with a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. At the close of their studies, they eagerly share their new found knowledge, skills, and expertise with their peers, teachers, and parents. The success and excitement of Project Weeks clearly demonstrate that in the right environment, a student’s desire to learn and grow can be ignited. In a dynamic educational setting, that nurtures and challenges them to explore their own passion projects children stretch well beyond typical expectations. 

The types of executive planning and social challenges that students encounter and master during lengthy, focused projects prepare them for the manifold challenges that they will face as adults. Colleges and companies are looking for dynamic thinkers who will step into leadership roles and know how to collaborate as part of a team. These institutions are in need of out-of-the-box thinkers who will lead us into an unknown future. Children who engage in project-based learning are well equipped to take the helm.

Another benefit to early immersion into projects of one’s own choosing is that students are increasingly able to identify their own interests and, over time, develop true focuses. This benefits them throughout their lives, as they are more likely to follow their strengths and delve deeply into explorations, leading to fulfilling lives and careers. 

Working with others offers the opportunity to practice negotiation. Students socially construct knowledge by conversing during project work; effectively expressing one’s own opinion and desires, integrating the ideas and knowledge of others, and changing one’s mind or direction are all important skills for all ages. Students come to trust themselves as leaders, thinkers, and innovators who will lead the way to new developments and bring creative solutions to our planet. 

The desire to learn first begins with our parents and continues to grow through the support of many incredible teachers. As our children explore their passions and grow in their life experiences, Ann Landers implores us to remember this important advice, “ It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.”

Kadi Cook, at VCS since 2008, has a rich background in the arts and humanities She integrates many teaching styles and draws from various teaching theories, with a focus on the Reggio Emilia philosophy and Constructivism.

Alysson Keelen, a member of VCS staff with 29 years of experience in the field of Education, is certified with the State of NJ as a K-12 Teacher of the Handicapped , K-8 Elementary School Teacher, Supervisor/Principal, and School Administrator.